IT CAN’T BE easy being Johnny Sexton.
While he is amply rewarded for his rugby-playing abilities in a financial sense, the Ireland out-half’s health is a constant talking point for the rugby nation, and he is expected to consistently deliver world-class performances for Joe Schmidt’s side.
Add to that the savage pressure Sexton places on himself and it must be a stressful mix at times.
In fairness to the 31-year-old, he virtually always steps up to the mark in terms of performance, but there will be even more onus on him tomorrow in Dublin against England [KO 5pm] without regular halfback partner Conor Murray.
One of the most notable aspects of the 10 minutes Sexton spent in the sin bin last weekend against Wales was how utterly rudderless Ireland looked without him on the pitch.
Paddy Jackson had stepped in to steer the ship during Sexton’s HIA, but without either out-half during the yellow card stint, Ireland sorely lacked someone who could fill the playmaking role and direct their phase-play attack.
Sexton starts against England tomorrow and will hope to complete as many of the 80 minutes as possible this time around, but has a brand-new halfback partner in Connacht’s Kieran Marmion.
“Conor is a world-class scrum-half and we’ve built up a really strong relationship over the last three years, maybe longer,” says Sexton. “He’d be a loss to any team in the world when he’s at his best.
“But Kieran has been outstanding for Connacht and has had to bide his time. I thought he did really well in difficult circumstances last week against Wales and he’ll be more confident for that effort.
“I’m sure he’s looking forward to showing people what he can do now, and even today [Thursday] was really the first session we’ve had together but we got on well and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring.”
So just the one training session together. Marmion’s second Test start, the other having come against Canada last November. So the pressure increases on Sexton, but then he’s accustomed to feeling that burden, which is usually self-imposed.
“I feel pressure every game I play for Ireland and every game I play for Leinster because I put pressure on myself,” says Sexton.
“And guys around you put pressure on you, when you are vice-captain or captain you have got pressure automatically because you need to perform.”
Aside from the late blocked-down kick before Jamie Roberts’ try, Sexton looked sharp against Wales last time out, having starred in the win against France in round three after fully recovering from his latest injury.
The yellow card in Cardiff still appears to rankle a little, however.
“Maybe, I couldn’t have done anything different,” says Sexton when asked if it was a fair call by Wayne Barnes. “I was totally trapped underneath [Jonathan] Davies and my legs were wrapped over him.
“They were holding us in over the ball for a lot of the game. I couldn’t have got out. But technically, yeah, it is a yellow card by me.”
Despite the knock to the head last weekend, which has left a black eye, Sexton says he is feeling back somewhere near his best physically, an exciting time for him individually after the travails of recent seasons.
A calf issue was the latest problem, and Sexton admits he was foolish in how he dealt with that injury.
“I got a knock against Montpellier [in January] and I put myself under pressure to play because I needed to get another game in before the Six Nations, because it is a step up. I stupidly played with that niggle and that compounded it.
“That could have been avoided and so was really frustrating. I missed two games at the start of it that would have given me momentum into the championship.
“A big regret, but I feel like I’m in a good place, and time will tell. It just was a frustrating period and it was a strange period as well because from the start of the season when I came back from the shoulder, I had probably done every single pitch session.
“It wasn’t like I was carrying myself, it was just a little niggle, and then another little niggle, and I was asking myself why, and got to the bottom of the problem we think, and that’s probably the positives that can come out of it.”
Ireland certainly need Sexton at his very best tomorrow as a confident English team rolls into the Aviva Stadium looking for the Grand Slam and their 19th Test victory in a row.
Sexton and everyone else had hoped this would be a championship decider, but England have been setting a standard that Ireland simply haven’t matched.
We’ve probably worked, since Joe’s come in, to not be that team,” says Sexton of the inconsistency during this Six Nations.
“To be the team that’s fighting for the championship and trying to be consistent. Now we’re in a position where we have nothing to play for except to stopping them doing something.
“We don’t want to be in that situation but we are and we’ve probably got to enjoy it now and then worry about how we’re going to become the team that England and the All Blacks are after the championship.”
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